Today, I am dragging you all the way back to the tenth century, a time when Castile was ruled by a count, when more than half of the Iberian Peninsula was controlled by the Moors. This was the time of the great Muslim caliphate, of the splendour of Córdoba, Zaragoza and Sevilla under Muslim rule. But to the north the Christian kingdoms had since some centuries been fighting back, slowly regaining ground lost when the Muslim armies first swept into Iberia from the south.
Today’s protagonist is García Fernández, son of Fernando, count of Castile, destined to be the next count. Our García is described in various legends as having been more than handsome, but in particular it was his hands that had people going “oooooo” and “aaaah”. Never had they seen such beautiful, perfectly proportioned hands! So white, so smooth, so…so… Well, I ran out of adjectives here, as I am not quite sure if García would like having them called uncalloused (which likely they were not, as the man was more or less born with sword in hand). García was apparently not as much in love with his hands as others were. In fact, he worried the sight of them would have women swooning or salivating with lust (?) which is why he mostly wore gloves.
Now, our García is a historical figure. He was born around 940 and died in 995. A long life back then, and to judge from the various legends in which our man of the day features, his was a VERY exciting life.
Spain has a veritable treasure trove of medieval epic poetry, i.e. fictionalised versions of history that strived to entertain while educating. Troubadors travelled far and wide performing the various cantares, and for them it was more important to captivate the audience than to stick to the truth, hence some colourful additions along the way.
In one of the more lurid legends, García features as the protagonist in a story involving two wives and bloody revenge. Very briefly, García married a French lady called Argentine. After a few years, his countess had grown sick and tired of both Castile and her hubby, so when a handsome French count came by for a visit, she happily leapt in bed with him and rode off with him next morning, leaving a humiliated García behind. Such an affront to his honour could not be borne. García left his lands in the care of two trusted men, disguised himself as a poor pilgrim and set off in search of his errant wife.
Soon enough, he found her, now living as the wife of her handsome count. (Not only adulterous but a bigamist as well was our fair Argentine…) The count had a daughter from a previous marriage called Sancha. This young lady hated her stepmother and her father with a passion, so she happily helped García sneak into their bedchamber where he beheaded them. With the severed heads in a sack, Garia returned to Castile, with Sancha as his new wife. His honour now restored—as demonstrated by the heads he proudly displayed to his men—he settled down to rule his lands, a matter of constantly fighting off the Moors, and in particular Almanzor, de facto ruler of the Caliphate of Córdoba.
Clearly, García was no good husband material—or he was really, really bad at choosing his wives. It only took a couple of years for Sancha to tire of being a mere countess, and when Almanzor whispered promises of wedding her and making her his queen, Sancha was more than eager to conspire with him to cause García’s death. Which she did.
This rather tragic melodrama is known as La Condesa Traidora – the traitorous countess – and dates from the mid 13th century. It is mostly fiction, as García only had one wife, and she was not called Argentine or Sancha. No, his wife was Ava. Still, some aspects of the story above seem to have been true-ish, and in the Crónica Najarense – written a century after the actual events—we have a somewhat different but just as tragic story.
So, we have a young count in need of a wife. At the time, Castile and Navarra (or Pamplona, as this kingdom was usually called back then) were close, and it seems to be at the suggestion of a certain lady in Pamplona that García married Ava of Ribagorza. Ava came from beyond the Pyrenees somewhere—a foreigner according to the Castilians, and, as we all know, foreigners should never be trusted. Case in point would be Ava’s future behaviour.
Our young hero and his new wife were soon busy doing what newly weds do, namely going for that so necessary heir. Ava delivered: one son, another son after which came five daughters. The eldest was named Sancho and plays an important part in the continuing story. ( I am happy to report that among the daughters there is an Urraca who devoted herself to a religious life)
There may have been more than the seven children we know off, but if so, said babies died young—not exactly uncommon back then. Anyway: all that childbearing does not seem to have led to love and devotion between Ava and García. Or maybe he was loving and devoted while she had it up to here with swelling up like a bloated pig and living through the rigours of childbirth over and over again. Or, perhaps, García was just generally unlikeable—although nothing points that way. Whatever the case, Ava was unhappy as countess of Castile. Something was missing in her life. She needed…
“A crown,” Almanzor suggested.
Right: time to take a closer look at our Moorish villain, who seems to have dangled the bait of weddings and crowns at every opportunity. Hmm. We must remember that the Crónica Najarense was written by Christians, and is therefore not an entirely unbiased source. His full name was Abu Āmir Muḥammad ibn ʿAbdullāh ibn Abi ʿĀmir al-Maʿafiri, but by the time he’s a part of this story he went by his nickname, Almanzor (al-Mansor) which means the victorious.
Extremely capable and just as ruthless, this brilliant man had clawed his way up from relatively humble beginnings to a position of immense power. A weak Caliph and a long-standing alliance with said Caliph’s mother had allowed Almanzor to effectively take over the rule of the Caliphate of Córdoba.
Over several decades, his efficient professional armies wreaked terror on the Christians. Almanzor was a firm believer in jihad, leading his men to one victory after the other as he plundered and pillaged his way through the Christian kingdoms. It is said that the slave markets of Córdoba overflowed with new slaves as a consequence of his actions. Supposedly, when he took Barcelona he returned home with over 70 000 chained Christians, and at one point he delivered 17 000 young women to be sold as slaves.
All in all, Almanzor was dangerous, efficient and determined to subjugate the entire peninsula. But his campaigns, his looting and destruction also led to better cooperation among the Christians, and when Almanzor died in 1002, there was no one to fill his boots. The Caliphate of Cordoba would collapse some years later dur to internal tensions and Berber invasions, and what had once been a united Muslim state would fragment into various taifa states, most of them too weak to withstand the determined and ferocious attacks of the Christian Reconquistadores.
But all that was in the future when Ava was considering that lovely, lovely crown. What did Almanzor want in return? Castile. “As your dowry,” he murmured. (Except that he didn’t murmur—that would assume they met, and that seems doubtful. He probably sent her messages instead)
Ava was clearly not all that bothered about disinheriting her son—or maybe she thought she was doing young Sancho a favour as García Fernández son and heir had rebelled against his father and joined Almanzor. For a while. Whatever the case, Ava needed to rid the world of García, and she decided that the way to do this was to get at his horse.
So why was Almanzor so eager to get rid of García?
Well, first of all, the count of Castile was a great warrior (despite those beautiful hands) who had capably defended his own lands and on occasion done much damage to Muslim strongholds.
Secondly, García worked endlessly towards creating a Christian alliance, something Almanzor did not want. At all.
Thirdly, there’s the matter of Almanzor’s son, who deserted his father’s armies and fled to Castile. García welcomed the youth and Almanzor was forced to subject Castile in a long and arduous campaign before bringing the count to the negotiation table. What Almanzor wanted was his son—and he was willing to offer peace in return. García agreed, but had Almanzor promise he wouldn’t execute his son for treason.
“Of course not!” Almanzor said—but did so anyway, the moment he had hold of his boy. García likely called Almanzor a lot of unflattering names, principally among those “oath-breaker”, and the tension between the two men spiralled even higher. No, Almanzor decided, the count had to go. ASAP. Hence his “love letters” to Ava.
Due to constant upheaval and the need to ride off at any moment to do battle and defend his lands, García kept his horse close by. The chronicles suggest that in some cases the horses were stabled in the solar and that it was the duty of the lady of the manor to feed it. I seriously doubt the horse-in-the-solar part, but Ava was evidently in charge of feeding García’s valiant steed.
Now, a valiant steed may be very valiant indeed, but if he hasn’t been fed properly, his legs will give out long before his heart. This was what Ava was counting on when she stopped giving the horse his oats. García’s poor horse was therefore not in the best of form when, at Christmas, the alarm came and García set off at a gallop to fend of the Moors. The horse collapsed. García was thrown, injured and captured and died after some days in captivity. To Almanzor’s credit, he immediately ensured García’s body was turned over to Christians living in Córdoba, so that he could be buried according to his own rites.
“Yay,” said Ava once she heard this, already planning her upcoming nuptials. But by now, Sancho was no longer best buddies with Almanzor, and her son was not about to hand over his Castile on a plate. Ava therefore had to get rid of him too. Wow. Ava is not exactly the most loving of mamas, is she?
What did Ava do? She tried to poison her son. But one of her maids was secretly in love with young Sancho’s squire, and she overheard enough to know what Ava was planning, so she warned Sancho. The very tired and recently fatherless young count rode home to be greeted by his mother, offering him a goblet.
“For you, my son,” she said. “Something to help you relax.”
“Thank you, Mamá. But please, drink some first. You look tired as well.” Ava didn’t want to drink. Sancho’s mouth set and he pulled his sword. “Drink, I said,” he repeated and Ava realised the game was up, that he knew what she’d planned. So she drank and died, and Sancho was left without either mother or father.
So, do I believe a story about an underfed horse and a frustrated wife? García did die in 995 after a blow from a lance had him fall of his horse, gravely injured and subsequently imprisoned, but from there to put all the blame on Ava, well, I don’t know. We must remember that to the relatively insular writers of the chronicles, Ava was a foreigner, and as such she was more or less predestined to be false. And every good Christian knew Almanzor was a devious bastard so him promising crowns and weddings was totally believable. Hmm, I say. Still, all those details about underfed horses and poisoned drinks makes one wonder if maybe—maybe—there’s a kernel of truth in all that.
Whatever the case, five years after his death García’s remains (including his by now skeletal hands) were transferred back to his beloved Castile, to the monastery of San Pedro de Cardeño. He shares his final resting place with the future hero of Spain, El Cid (and also with El Cid’s horse). And there he still lies, although by now not as much as a knuckle remains of hands that once had people exclaiming at their sheer beauty. Easy come, easy go, as they say!